In March, four workers got fired from their front-of-house staff roles at BrewDog Indianapolis, a brick-and-mortar taproom affiliated with the Scottish craft beer brand by the same name. A bit unusual, considering that the bar, located in the city’s popular Fountain Square neighborhood, was then on the verge of reopening for on-premise service after a winter furlough. Moreover, the fired workers said they’d received high performance rankings and gifts from the company prior to termination.
But hey, this is America, where at-will employment is the law of the land in 49 of 50 states (including Indiana) and you can be fired at any time for almost any reason or no reason at all. So these firings could’ve easily passed without much notice in Indy’s F&B community, let alone the broader beer industry. But they didn’t, for two reasons.
First: Three of the employees identify as women, two identify as trans women, and they were all fired on International Women’s Day 2021. Those termination conversations included a conspicuous turn of phrase that stood out to the four, all of whom identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community.
“The new general manager, who none of us have ever met — we don’t even know what he looks like — called us one by one and told us that we were all being fired because they wanted a change in culture at BrewDog,” former BrewDog Indianapolis front-of-house staffer Erica O’Neill told WISH-TV, an Indiana news outlet, last month.
After BrewDog fired 4 LGBT staff members, 2 of us transgender in the span of an hour, they told us this was due to the bar needing a “culture change.” Now their story keeps changing. This is a multi million dollar corporation abusing at-will employment laws to fire LGBT people. pic.twitter.com/5XfZ4Xbn0z
— jorde (@himbocity) March 11, 2021
Wanting a “change in culture” is simply not the sort of thing you say aloud while axing someone, let alone members of a workplace’s LGBTQ+ workforce. In addition to being needlessly cruel, it’s also potential grounds for a workplace discrimination suit, something the workers told me in a recent interview that they’re exploring with legal counsel. For the record, the company has not denied (either to me, or elsewhere) that someone uttered the phrase when firing the four workers. BrewDog USA’s chief executive officer, Jason Block, issued a statement saying the phrase “was not sanctioned and would not be how we communicate performance issues.” As backlash mounted, James Watt, BrewDog’s highly visible cofounder, posted on the company’s shareholder forum that “the person who instructed these dismissals to happen has now left our business;” according to BrewBound.
(Backbone Media, the Colorado firm that handles BrewDog USA’s public relations, declined to make Block, Watt, or his co-founder, Martin Dickie, available for interviews for this column.)
The other reason these firings generated considerable outrage, I think, is the fact that they happened at BrewDog. The Scottish company, which established its mostly Midwestern footholds in the American market via a U.S. subsidiary in 2017, has courted controversy on all fronts since its founding a decade earlier. Thanks to the marketing savvy of Watt and Dickie, the provocateur-punk schtick has been (mostly) good for business: In 2020, Forbes pegged the value of the privately held company around $2 billion, and this year it made its debut on the Brewers Association’s Top 50 volume-sales leaderboard at #41.
But if the company’s marketing has often toed the line between obtuse “lad humor” and deliberate offense on its path to a billion-dollar valuation and fast-growing U.S. sales, it has regularly trampled that line when it comes to initiatives targeted to or about women and LGBTQ+ communities. Consider the following:
- 2011: BrewDog invited food writers to a then-new London location for a tasting that included its “titillating” and since-discontinued Trashy Blonde Ale, the label for which promised “attitude, style, substance and a little bit of low self esteem for good measure.” At the tasting, cofounder James Watt reportedly made a few off-color jokes, including one meant to demonstrate the brand wasn’t discriminatory against women or lesbians because his cofounder Martin Dickie had “some DVDs at home of just lesbians.” (This was apparently a rehash of an anecdote BrewDog posted to its own blog in 2009, which has since been taken down; I accessed it via the Wayback Machine.)
- 2014: The company released “Hello, My Name Is Vladimir,” a self-described “protest beer” that featured the Russian president wearing makeup and the tagline #notforgays on its label. Watt promoted the beer — nominally a critique of Putin’s notorious homophobia timed to the Winter Olympics in Sochi — with thinly veiled homoerotic jokes. The gag (50 percent of the proceeds of which the company said it would donate to charity) read less radical than retrograde to critics like Oli Carter-Esdale, who later wrote that it “bore all the hallmarks of the same masculinity which it attempted to ridicule through the production of russophobia and pop-art.”
- June 2015: In a bid to promote the company’s latest round of fundraising, Watt and Dickie filmed a video in which they dressed up as trans sex workers and unhoused people to show potential donors the lengths to which they’d go to solicit fresh capital. The ad, entitled #DontMakeUsDoThis, came in for wide criticism, and a petition calling for its removal netted over 36,000 signatures. Responding to the criticism at the time, Watt told The Drum “it’s a shame some people have taken offence,” and touted what he called his firm’s “history of supporting and championing the LGBT community.”
- November 2015: Just a few months later, BrewDog launched “No Label,” a Kolsch it said was “the world’s first ‘non-binary, transgender beer” on account of its incorporation of “hops that have changed sex from female to male flowers prior to harvest.” Stonewall, a U.K. LGBTQ+ advocacy organization, issued a statement expressing reservations over the product’s language, while members of the country’s trans community criticized BrewDog more harshly for trying to “make a brand out of a community … as marginalized and oppressed as ours is.”
- 2018: Three years ago, also on International Women’s Day, the brewery released “Pink IPA” — a version of its flagship relabeled for women and ostensibly meant to raise awareness and charity funds to address the wage gap between men and women. The marketing stunt may have smarted for the firm’s women employees, who the previous year had earned 2.8 percent less in median hourly pay than their male colleagues, according to data collected by the U.K.’s Government Equalities Office. (To be fair, by 2019, BrewDog’s women workers earned 2.6 percent more in median hourly wages than their male colleagues; also to be fair, that report found women’s average wage still lagged men’s by 6.3 percent at the firm.)
These are just the historical incidents I’ve clocked from coverage over the years. (If you work at BrewDog, or used to, and have more stories to tell, by all means get in touch.) In fairness, BrewDog is hardly the only company in the craft beer business that has released an ill-named beer or launched an ill-conceived advertising campaign in the past. Even on the more serious stuff, including harassment allegations and workplace discrimination lawsuits, the Scottish firm is not alone. These are problems that plague breweries large and small.
But BrewDog, which has long traded on its founders’ line-stepping swagger as both corporate ethos and lucrative marketing strategy, seems to transgress more — or at least, more publicly and deliberately — than many of its craft brewing peers. It does so in spite of its stated values regarding women and the LGBTQ+ community and, crucially, it’s had plenty of success along the way. In addition to the U.S. firm’s placement on the BA’s Top 50 this year (and the $330 million in revenue that put it there), Watt and Dickie announced in an April 10 AGM livestream that the overall group’s revenue grew by 11 percent, and its volume by 32 percent. That’s no mean feat during the pandemic.
Everyone told us it was just stupid for a little Scottish brewery to take on America.🇺🇸
Everyone told us @BrewDog in the USA would never work. 🏴
However, in 2020 BrewDog USA was officially the fastest growing craft brewery in America.🍻
— James Watt (@BrewDogJames) April 2, 2021
In economic terms, BrewDog’s marketing gambit seems to be working — a troubling notion for the fired former workers in Indianapolis. “I feel like BrewDog and other [craft breweries] have kept safe this dark satire, like, ‘We can make jokes and no one can get mad at them or hold us accountable because we’re punk, we’re alternative, and we’re leading this industry,” Leah Foster, one of the fired workers from Indianapolis, told me. “It’s hiding an entire group of hateful people behind jokes.”
To Foster and her compatriots, the company’s track record is also vital context for their terminations — context they didn’t have while working for BrewDog.
“I really feel like BrewDog is intentionally deceptive to its employees about this,” Jordan Dalton, another of the Indy ex-employees in question, told me. “We had to go through an orientation that was a lot of hyping up of BrewDog and also James Watt and the other founder specifically … so for me to kind of do some digging and find something so shocking and disgusting to me, it definitely made me want to pursue this further.”
“If I knew about those things, I would have never gone to this company, being a trans woman myself,” added Kyrrha Myers, another fired worker. “I’m sure BrewDog and James Watt didn’t want us to know about that. It’s not a good look for BrewDog, and now it comes back to … I see why people have issues with BrewDog.”
Of course, ad campaigns and personnel management are two different corporate spheres, and the U.K. and U.S. are totally different markets. And while most of the marketing stunts began with something nominally good — raising money for LGBTQ+ causes, for example — that wound up boorish in execution, it’s hard to imagine anyone at BrewDog was enthused by the idea of firing workers during a pandemic.
Still, one thing that’s consistent across these incidents is the company’s reaction to accusations of bigotry against women and the LGBTQ+ community. It’s a bit of a two-step, and it goes like this.
Step one: burnish BrewDog’s progressive bona fides. With the ads, this often meant pointing to the charity component of the controversial promotion, and emphasizing its good intentions. In Indianapolis, it meant reframing the conversation around women generally, and the company’s employment of them in particular. “BrewDog USA proudly employs many women — more than half of our retail locations are led by women and 52% percent of our bars’ employees are women,” read Block’s initial statement, emailed the day after Dalton’s social media posts about the firing went viral.
(“Maybe 52 percent of those people who work there are women, but are they being treated well? Are they being sexually harassed by their managers?” scoffed Erica O’Neill, one of the fired workers, when I ran that figure by her. “It’s just such false promises from another rich white guy who has no idea what’s going on in his own company.”)
Step two: if that doesn’t dissolve the backlash mounting against it, BrewDog’s leadership will offer an apology that’s direct enough to provide cover but noncommittal enough that it won’t be seen as capitulating to pressure, which might be bad for the brand’s damn-the-torpedoes public face.
“They always say, ‘Oh, we really want to listen, we’re really sorry, we want to apologize, we’re gonna learn from this,’” Carter-Esdale, a hospitality worker in the U.K. and frequent Twitter critic of BrewDog who in 2019 delivered an academic lecture on the firm titled “Brewing a Neo-Liberal Empire,” told me in a recent interview. “But there are only so many times you can claim that you’re learning, and not learn.”
Of course, as a 1,000-person company, BrewDog contains multitudes, so it’s entirely possible that workers within the company are genuinely trying to help the company grow from its past missteps and use its considerable resources for good. To wit: As this article was being edited for publication, several U.K. craft breweries, including the Queer Brewing Project, announced a partnership with BrewDog to contract-brew and package collaborative beers for Tesco, a popular supermarket chain. It’s a huge opportunity for the Queer Brewing Project, a small U.K. producer that promotes and advocates for LGBTQ+ people in the beer community. Beer writer and QBP founder Lily Waite told me that the partnership “will enable our young brewery to gain visibility and a reach otherwise impossible, as well as having a significant financial impact.” BrewDog’s market access and brewing capacity, in other words, will march Waite’s mission onto store shelves and squarely into the mainstream.
If you’d said we’d have a queer product available to thousands and thousands of people, everything would have been different. If you’d shown me a photo of two queer—one trans—women on a can of beer in major stores, I would have felt so differently.
— Lily Waite (@LilyWaite_) April 14, 2021
“I’ve long had issues with BrewDog and the deeply problematic ‘stunts’ they’ve pulled in the past. These, of course, were taken into consideration, and whilst my feelings on those events haven’t changed, we do believe BrewDog to be a company that is maturing and moving beyond that behavior,” Waite said. Despite the “disheartening” reports from Indianapolis, and the “repetitive questions” they raise about equity in the craft beer industry, in her view, the partnership (which will be managed by proxy via another U.K. craft brewer, Cloudwater) is still a win for the LGBTQ+ community in beer. “As far as our own involvement with BrewDog goes, indirectly working with a brewery with a problematic past to continue our work to combat queer- and trans-phobia in beer, and make the beer world a better space, is a net positive,” Waite said.
It won’t be the first case of odd bedfellows in the beer business, or the last. But the Indianapolis workers are not interested in waiting for BrewDog to mature; they want to force the issue. “Queer Brewing [Project] seems like an important space, and one of the reasons I want to be vocal about our experience is so that queer people in the industry know about BrewDog’s past,” Dalton told me via DM, reacting to news of the partnership.
It’s an echo of what their colleague, Leah Foster, the fourth terminated employee, said in an interview in late March. The workers believe their firings were discriminatory and that BrewDog’s past is prologue to those terminations. They hope to use the legal system to hold BrewDog accountable. “The most important thing to me [in pursuing the lawsuits] is that pressure is put on this company to reflect on how they conduct business, and to be pressured to decide if they want to change, because they are not doing it ethically,” Foster told me. “Making them uncomfortable, and hopefully bringing them to a round table where they question what they’re doing? I don’t have to make any money for that to be worth it.”
Whether the company follows through on its promises to promote healthier workplace culture and “evaluat[e] additional opportunities to ensure we’re a safe and inclusive place for all team members, Equity Punks and customers,” whether it is maturing away from its cringeworthy antics of the recent past, whether the fired workers’ legal action can force its hand on that front — all that remains to be seen. But if BrewDog’s history is any guide… well, let’s just hope it isn’t.
Published: April 16, 2021